A Tasty Change From So-so Soup

By Mark Ellen

New Musical Express, February 24, 1979

Frank Zappa

Hammersmith Odeon [1]

In the late ’60s, Zappa’s crusty operettas were known to warp impressionable young minds, while striking chords of primal panic in the ranks of the morally stable.

By ’74 (‘Apostrophe’), the Mudshark, the Poodle and all other spectres from his fetid fantasias no longer outraged, they merely amused. Despite his insidious contempt for the lame-brained, hung-up geeks that he reckoned constituted his audience, Zappa’s seedy demeanour had lost its ‘reactionary’ stamp.

On stage for this year’s panto in nasty pink shirt, buckled sandals and shapeless white strides, he cuts a perversely tame figure. The shock/horror mystique has long since been replaced by ‘total control’.

Perched on a stool, tapping a toe, coffee and king-size in hand, he clicks a finger and the band shift gear like a programmed computer. He wanders out front, hand in pocket, marshals the crowd to stand up or "be sedentary" ("in normal circumstances I’d call this audience participation") and the whole place shifts as one.

Apart from a change of bassist and an added guitar (making four in all), it’s the same band as he used for Knebworth last year. They’re formally introduced as Peter Wolf and Tommy Mars (keyboards), Vince [Colaiuta] (drums), Ed Mann (percussion), Denny Walley (guitar) and the excellent Ike Willis (guitar and floppy knitted hat), who supplies many a fine idiot vocal when Frank is resting up.

They play a non-stop stunning three hour show which, according to the set list, totals 22 numbers. Mostly, it continues Zappa’s precision jazz/rock workouts, balanced by his overtones of clever, caustic cynicism and effortless drollery. Merely glance at the cover of his new album ‘Sheik Yerbouti’ — FZ swathed in a mail-order [djellaba] — and you’ll get the drift.

He walks a thin line between the ageing tackiness of his sagas and the sheer complexity of his music; to over-indulge in either, as he has proved in the past, amounts to extreme tedium. But neither can be called ‘experimental’ anymore, they’re just extensions of his own commercial formula.

In fact, comparing his earliest offerings (‘I Ain’t Got No Heart’ and ‘Brown Shoes Don’t Make It’) with the latest (‘Jumbo’ and ‘Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?’), it’s clear that his lyrics have never veered much from the gross and narrow. But he keeps the smut count low by underplaying the theatrics, using the band’s Disneyland sound effects to highlight the absurdity of the songs.

They’re all paced out perfectly to dilute the extended jazzy instrumentals, varying from the ultra-disco ‘Dancing Fool’, the sublime ‘Peaches En Regalia’ (with a new reggae inflection), to the ridiculous ‘Cosmik Debris’.

Just when they wind up the Nanook section (‘Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow’ and ‘St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast’) and the act seems under control, Zappa starts leafing through a book that someone’s handed him from the front row. He looks delighted. It’s passed around the whole band, who all crack-up in hysterics. We’re treated to an extract — a clinical aid to the canine birth process, advising the use of sterilized scissors.

In normal circumstances, I’d call it weird. In this case, you know it makes sense.

1. Zappa's band performed in Hammersmith Odeon, London, in February 17-19, 1979. In total they had four concerts. Playlists see FZShows.

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